Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (Frameline, NR)

queen_02.gifThe real subject of Screaming Queens is the whole modern history of the transgender community in San Francisco.

 

 

 

 

 

The modern gay pride movement is often traced back to the Stonewall Riots which took place in New York City in June 1969, but that famous event was preceded by almost three years by a similar uprising in San Francisco known as the riot at Compton’s cafeteria.

The riot at Compton’s in August 1966 was sparked by a police attempt to arrest a transgender person who frequented the cafeteria. As in New York, the transgender community in San Francisco was accustomed to police harassment, but on that particular night the intended victim chose to resist arrest. Other patrons joined in, the police were forced to flee, and the resulting disturbance grew into a full-fledged riot which trashed the cafeteria and spilled out into the street. As with Stonewall, the Compton’s riot marked a change both in how the transgender community viewed itself, and in the treatment it received from the police and other governmental agencies.

The documentary Screaming Queens, directed by transgender scholar and author Susan Stryker and history professor Victor Silverman, aims to restore the riot at Compton’s to its rightful place in gay history. This subject has particular significance for Stryker, who narrates the film: She discovered the story of the Compton’s riot as she was beginning her transition from male to female, and became secure in her new identity while conducting the research which led to this film.

The real subject of Screaming Queens is the whole modern history of the transgender community in San Francisco. The Tenderloin district was the de facto home to transgender community of San Francisco in the 1950s and 1960s, and Compton’s cafeteria, open 24 hours a day at the corner of Turk and Taylor streets, was their home away from home. Many transgender people lived in nearby hotels and some worked as prostitutes in the neighborhood, where the police took payoffs to tolerate illegal activity.

Screaming Queens is a straightforward documentary, composed largely of archival footage and contemporary interviews bound together by Stryker’s narration. It creates a portrait of a time and place which to some today may seem as far removed as ancient Egypt. Cross-dressing was against the law, so transgender people could be arrested at any time. If the police needed further cause, they could invoke charges such as “obstructing the sidewalk.” Applying for most jobs required presentation of an official state ID card, leaving transgender people in a unique bind because the gender designation assigned at birth could not be changed on the card to match a person’s adult identity. That left few employment options; those with the talent could perform in nightclubs, while those without could become streetwalkers.

Much changed after the riot at Compton’s. Newly respectful of the transgender community, the police department assigned a liaison officer to address grievances and mediate conflicts. The department of public health began issuing ID cards to transgender people which allowed them to seek ordinary employment. Federal antipoverty funds became available in the Tenderloin, which allowed many transgender people to pursue education and job training and leave prostitution behind.

The heart of Screaming Queens is the interviews with some of the queens referred to in the title — their straightforward tales of harassment and danger in the bad old days, and the changes which occurred after the riot, are more convincing than any array of facts and figures. They were able to take advantage of the post-riot opportunities because, in the words of Amanda St. Jaymes, “Once you feel good about yourself, no one can hurt you.” The results were as varied as the women themselves: Tamara Ching became an AIDS prevention and sex worker activist, St. Jaymes a secretary, and Aleisha Brevard a B movie actress, Playboy bunny and high school drama teacher.

Interviews with Pastor Ed Hansen and police sergeant Eliot Blackstone prove you don’t have to be a screaming queen to get it. Hansen, who worked with Vanguard (the first church outreach organization for gay youth in America), said he regarded the transgender hustlers he counseled simply as children of God. Similarly, police sergeant Eliot Blackstone, as straight a guy as you are ever likely to meet, helped coordinate a network of transgender activists and was able to negotiate an end to some habitual police harassment of the gay community. | Sarah Boslaugh

Screaming Queens was produced in association with KQED Public Television and the Independent Television Service and is distributed on DVD by Frameline. Further information is available from the company website http://www.frameline.org/ , by email from distribution@frameline.org , or by calling 415-703-8650.

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